18 Fabulous Fiction Books for 2018

“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”

This quote from Albert Camus is why I love fiction. Reading about other peoples’ made up lives, I learn something about myself. Fiction transports me to other times, places and events. Yet, universal truths about the human condition are true for all. For convenience sake, I’ve linked these 18 favorites of mine to Amazon, but you can find them at other sites, including my favorite, the library!

Double Jeopardy

  1. “I Know This Much Is True” by Wally Lamb

I didn’t think Lamb could beat “She’s Come Undone” (how could a man know so much about being a woman?), but he does with his second book. Both were #1 New York Times bestsellers and both Oprah Book Club selections. Like the best of fiction, “I Know” made me abandon reason and stay up reading into the wee hours despite having to work the next day. This tale of two brothers, one who has schizophrenia, begs the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

  1. “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese

With so many books and so little time, I rarely read the same one twice. This was an exception. The second reading held me as spellbound as the first. Ethiopian, African and American cultures and politics intertwine across decades in the telling of Marion and Shiva Stone’s complicated relationship. Written by a medical doctor, the book not only intrigued me with the twin brothers’ storyline, but also taught me about the plight of many poor Ethiopian women; some suffered female genital mutilation and often vaginal fistulas, making them outcasts.

Dysfunctional Families

  1. “The Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver

Another great read with a history lesson. The setting is Belgian Congo in the late 1950s. Although I had a hard time getting into “The Poisonwood Bible,” once I did, I couldn’t put it down. Told by each of the four daughters and the wife of a misanthropic missionary, the different points of view offer a unique perspective on the times and religious beliefs.

  1. “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout

I couldn’t quite put my finger on the title character. Olive is by turns harsh and uncaring,  then compassionate. She’s one tough cookie, especially with her son and husband, a softie. HBO made this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel into a “true to the book” miniseries starring Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, and Bill Murray. I rarely watch movies twice; this was an exception.

A Difficult Life

  1. “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon

“The Curious Incident” involves a teen boy in England. On the autism spectrum, Christopher is a math wizard with few social skills. When he discovers a neighbor’s dog murdered with a pitchfork, he decides to play Sherlock Holmes. Christopher sees the world in black and white, sometimes to comic effect, with a touch of sadness. The Syracuse Stage play of the same name was an amazing production. It was also true to the book, which always makes me happy.

  1. “Icy Sparks” by Gwyn Hyman Rubio

Set in eastern Kentucky, Rubio’s first novel captures the sad and touching life of a young girl with Tourette Syndrome in the 1950s, when little was understood about the inherited neurological tic disorder. The book chronicles the orphan’s growing up among misguided adults and children and her acceptance of her condition as a young woman. She’s one of those fictional heroines who makes you want to stand up and cheer.

  1. “Left Neglected” by Lisa Genova

Neuroscientist turned author, Genova sheds light on a number of neurological diseases in her well-researched books. You may be familiar with “Still Alice,” Genova’s account of an accomplished college professor who has early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Left neglect is the result of a stroke or traumatic brain injury. The condition can affect either side of the brain. In “Left Neglected,” a young suburban mom learns what it means to live without awareness of one side of her body–and more.

Mystery/Thrillers

  1. “The Good Daughter” by Karin Slaughter

I’m a fan of Slaughter’s “Will Trent” series, but with her latest publication, the author outdid herself. If gruesome details bother you, then skip Slaughter’s books. But if you like well-written legal thrillers, then check out this cold case thriller that deals with a young female lawyer’s horrific past, her troubled family relationships, and small-town secrets.

  1. “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Julia Spencer-Fleming

In this first of a series of mysteries set in the Adirondacks, Spencer-Fleming sets the stage for the thorny relationship between the Episcopal church’s new priest, the Rev. Clare Fergusson, and the Miller Kill’s chief of police, Russ Van Alstyne. The author creates a cast of memorable characters that appear in subsequent novels. I can’t wait for the next installment, where I hope she resolves the cliffhanger in #9.

Mystery With History

  1. “Alice’s Tulips” by Sandra Dallas

Dallas’s books may appeal more to women, often centering on the social network of the past known as “quilting bees.” In this book that takes place during the Civil War, Alice is a new bride who lives with her formidable mother-in-law while her husband is off fighting for the North. Alice soon finds herself accused of murder, and so the mystery begins.

Love Story With History

  1. “The Sandcastle Girls” by Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian, like Wally Lamb, writes with wisdom about women (“Midwives”). In “The Sandcastle Girls,” I learned about  Armenian Genocide during World War I. The narrative weaves between past and present for Elizabeth, a wealthy American who volunteers to help Armenian refugees in Syria, and Armen, a young Armenian engineer. It’s a love story set in the background of man’s inhumanity to man.

More Than a Mystery

  1. “Leaving Time” by Jodi Picoult

Although some dismiss Picoult as a “chick” author, she researches her subjects in depth. There’s always a backdrop to the main character’s story that deals with current social issues. In “Leaving Time,” Picoult enlarged my knowledge about elephants and their culture. At the center of this tale is Jenna, whose mother studied grief among elephants. Jenna is determined to find her mother, whose sudden disappearance has never been explained. Did she abandon Jenna or worse?

Coming of Age

  1. “Ordinary Grace” by William Kent Krueger

Middle-aged Frank Drum recalls the summer in New Bremen, Minnesota, in 1961, when several deaths rocked the small community. “Ordinary Grace” not only deals with the crimes and their effect on the townspeople, but also Drum’s family dynamics. Many have compared it to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” especially with the similarities between Atticus Finch of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Drum’s father, the town’s Methodist minister.

  1. “Snow in August” by Pete Hamill

Set in Brooklyn in 1947, the story involves the unlikely friendship between an 11-year-old Catholic boy and a lonely rabbi from Prague. From the rabbi, Michael learns the mysteries of the Kabbalah, and the pre-teen introduces the rabbi to the joys of baseball. Terrorized by an anti-Semitic Irish gang, the unlikely duo is rescued by a miracle, otherwise known as a golem.

Fiction by Female Authors

  1. “The Robber Bride” by Margaret Atwood

Although I enjoy Atwood’s dystopian fiction, including “The Handmaid’s Tale,” I remember “The Robber Bride” for its depth of characters–four women who met in college. Twenty years later, three of them gather for the fourth one’s funeral, but is she really dead?

  1. “The Story of Arthur Truluv” by Elizabeth Berg

Berg had me at “Talk Before Sleep,” and since then, I’ve read every book she’s published. Although a few have fallen short of the author’s elegant writing and in-depth knowledge of human nature, her latest one does not disappoint. The story of an elderly man who visits his wife’s gravesite every day, a rebellious teen he befriends and their relationship with Arthur’s spunky senior neighbor lady makes for a quick, pleasurable read.

Out of My Comfort Zone

  1. “Angle of Repose” by Wallace Stegner

Shout out to my local library in Marcellus, New York, which sponsored a Pulitzer Prize-winning book club. The moderator introduced our suburban group of readers to books that often took us out of our comfort zone. “Angle of Repose” was my favorite. Lyman Ward, who lives alone despite a crippling bone disease, is the focus of this story within a story. Ward explores the life of his pioneering grandmother, who, with her engineer husband, struggles to raise a family in the hardscrabble west in the late 1800s.

  1. “Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri

Preferring novels to short  stories, I had enjoyed reading Lahiri’s “Namesake.” My book club selected this collection of nine stories, some set in India, others in the U.S. Although she considers herself American, Lahiri features her ancestry prominently. Her characters, however, transcend borders and cultures, with their feelings of love, loss and other universal experiences.

Homemade Sauerkraut is Easier Than You Think

I’m mostly Irish and German and my wife is mostly Polish and Irish. Thus, explaining why we make our own sauerkraut seems indulgent, but here I go anyway. I love sauerkraut with my hot dogs and Reubens, and she loves to use it to make pierogi and kapusta. We both love it with some kielbasa. And like most everything else food related, it tastes better when it’s homemade.

Whether or not you have a genetic predisposition for pickled cabbage fermented in lactic acid bacteria, read on, as I share with you my family’s recipe for sauerkraut. This recipe comes from my mother and stepfather, who passed it on to my wife and me.

Print Recipe
Sauerkraut Recipe
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Instructions
  1. Wash and then cut the heads of cabbage into pieces small enough to fit into the food processor. Using the appropriate blade for 1/4-inch slices, process one head of cabbage and place the result into the fermentation crock. Sprinkle a little salt on the cabbage. Massage the cabbage vigorously with your hands to bring out its moisture (this process forms the brine). Do this for 10-15 minutes with each head, using the rest of the salt. Let it sit for one hour.
  2. The next step is to pack the salt and cabbage mixture down into your crock. The brine should cover the kraut completely. If there is not enough brine to cover the cabbage, you need to massage the cabbage some more. When you are done packing, spread a sheet of cheesecloth across the top so that, later, when a layer of scum or moldy residue appears on top, you can easily remove the cheesecloth, rinse it off, and replace it. Then place the fermentation weights on top of the cheesecloth; these weights will keep the cabbage submerged in the brine. Finally, cover the crock with a top. We have wooden fitted tops with handles, while my stepfather uses a flat piece of plywood and a brick. Either will work.
  3. Allow the cabbage to ferment for approximately three weeks at room temperature. Feel free to give the cabbage a taste after one or two weeks to see how it's going, but try not to open the crock repeatedly. When you think the kraut is done, transfer it to quart-size freezer-style zip-lock bags and freeze them.
  4. With the sauerkraut in these bags, it is so easy to, say, pull a couple of bags out, run them under hot water for a minute to loosen the kraut, put the contents into a crock-pot with two kielbasa, sit it on low for 5.5 hours, and you will have a delicious dinner waiting when it's done!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

A Sweet Family Activity: NY Maple Weekends are Here!

It’s just about time for my favorite family activity. As we anticipate our annual tradition of visiting a local maple farm, I can’t help but recall a favorite childhood memory.

I remember adding maple sugar to fresh snow to make a sweet treat (don’t worry, scientists say eating small amounts of snow usually isn’t harmful). Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House in the Big Woods” was a childhood favorite of mine and I copied this trick that Laura’s grandmother taught her. My daughter recently read the story and it will be great to re-enact the experience with her–especially given our upcoming trip to a “sugar house.”

With New York’s Maple Weekends starting soon, upstate New Yorkers can visit a maple farm and start their own family traditions.

Packard Valley Farms

Shevah (r) and her daughter making memories at a local maple farm.

Every spring, New York State Maple Producers Association coordinates events at the “sugar houses” at about 160 farms and museums. This year it will be March 17-18 and 24-25, 2018. Find a place near you!

Most places have hands-on demonstrations of how syrup is made, fresh syrup tastings, and experts on hand to answer questions. Many also have pancake breakfasts complete with—you guessed it— local syrup.

My family loves these maple weekends. This fun family activity signals the beginning of spring, even if there’s still snow on the ground. The highlight for my 9-year-old-daughter is sampling fresh syrup, maple butter, and, of course, maple candy.

Making maple syrup

I also love seeing how syrup is made and how natural the process is. While upgrades have been made over time, the basic process has remained the same for centuries. Native Americans in the northeastern United States and Canada were known to make syrup, and today New York is a top syrup producer.

Really, anyone can do it. The process involves very simple, classic steps:

Phase One: Find a sugar, black or red maple tree, drill a hole for a tap, add a bucket under the tap and let gravity work its magic.

Phase Two: Boil! It takes about ten gallons of sap to make 1 quart of syrup. Farms have huge vats for this process. And don’t forget to filter the syrup once boiled to remove sediment.

Phase Three: Pour into a sterile bottle and cap. Keep unopened containers in a cool place for up to two years. Once opened, store in the refrigerator for up to a year.

Phase Four: Enjoy!

You may notice syrup comes in different colors. Some have rich hues of brown or amber or gold. There’s a reason for this! A syrup’s color and flavor correlates to when the syrup was made; sap from later in the season is often darker in color and typically has a stronger flavor.

More than Pancakes

Maple syrup isn’t just for breakfast.

You can bake with it, using syrup in place of the sugar.

If you’re replacing sugar with maple syrup, you’ll want to use about ¾ cup of syrup for every cup of sugar and decrease the amount of liquid in your recipe by about three tablespoons.

Maple syrup can also be added to ice cream, BBQ sauce, fudge and kettle corn. Some of my favorite food magazines, such as Epicurious  and Food and Wine , are full of inspiration.

Visit the Excellus BlueCross BlueShield Pinterest page for other tasty recipes for baking with maple syrup. (Don’t forget to view the recipes at the end of this story!)

“Just remember, maple syrup is basically sugar so enjoy it in moderation,” said Patricia Salzer, registered dietitian, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield.

A local tradition

If you’re a Maple Weekend newbie, here are some of my favorite places to consider:

  • Cumming Nature Center in Ontario County. Part of the Rochester Museum and Science Center (RMSC), the tour focuses on the science of syrup making. This is a big place, so leave time to explore the extensive trails after breakfast.
  • Genesee Country Village and Museum in Monroe County. I’m a sucker for period costumes. You can experience syrup making in the 19th century. During maple sugar weekends, the museum is an especially attractive family activity with free admission for kids 18 and under.
  • Packard Valley Farms in Wayne County. This has been a favorite family activity for the past few years. There is a petting zoo and a hay ride up the road to a restaurant serving breakfast all day!
  • Schoff’s Sugar Shack in Ontario County. This family business uses modern techniques for making syrup. Instead of a tap and bucket, they use tubing to carry the sap into a pipeline.

Other farms to consider include:

Enjoying a Family Activity at Packard Valley Farms

Enjoying a fun family activity at Packard Valley Farms.

Try these (syrup-y) recipes

Print Recipe
Smoky Maple Marinade
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  1. Whisk all the ingredients together.
  2. Use the mix to coat your favorite protein. For chicken, pork or beef, marinate one to four hours. For tofu or seafood, marinate for up to one hour.
Print Recipe
Maple Hash
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  1. Brown the meat in butter or olive oil. Once browned, remove the meat from the pan.
  2. Stir in the sweet potato and onion, scraping up the meaty bits off the bottom of the pan. A splash of water, apple cider or apple juice on the bottom of the hot pan will help this process and add a nice flavor.
  3. Saute the sweet potato and onion until soft, about 10 minutes. (Speed trick - you can soften your sweet potatoes by throwing them into boiling water on the stove or in a microwave safe dish until fork tender).
  4. Once your sweet potatoes are fork tender, stir in the diced apple. Stir this around until the apples get soft, about four to five minutes.
  5. Once your veggies are fork tender, stir the sausage back in. Add the cinnamon, maple syrup and salt and pepper to taste. Cook together about three to five minutes or until everything looks happily married.
  6. Enjoy! It’s delicious on its own or with a fried or poached egg on top.

Tasty Winter Squash Bake with Feta

There are a few dishes in my cooking rotation that I can make in my sleep. This winter squash bake with Feta cheese is one of them – thanks to my sister-in-law who first made this dish for us a few years ago. It’s evolved to take in estranged vegetables, like that last head of broccoli or a handful of spinach. You can swap out any vegetable you like, make this vegan or vegetarian. It’s easy to make ahead, freeze, is great comfort food and travels well. Even the pickiest eaters in our family will eat this one. Enjoy!

Print Recipe
Winter Squash Bake with Feta
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 40 minutes
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people
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Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 40 minutes
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Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 425
  2. Heat your olive oil and brown your sausage. Once browned, remove the sausage.
  3. Add another swirl of olive oil to the pan drippings. Stir in garlic, onion, bell pepper and broccoli. Cook for two minutes.
  4. Stir in the squash and coat with the oil mixture in the pan. Add oregano, thyme, red pepper flakes, and salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Stir in the spinach and squeeze some lemon juice on top of it. Stir for just a moment until it wilts.
  6. Combine the vegetables and sausage in a baking dish. Swirl in a little olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice and some more salt and pepper.
  7. Cover with foil. Bake for 25 minutes or until the squash is fork tender. Once it is, or slightly before, remove foil and add feta cheese.
  8. Bake for another 5 minutes or until the feta is bubbly and delicious. Serve with some crusty bread!

What You Might Not Know about the Festival of Holi

It’s almost spring! For me, that means it’s almost time to celebrate Holi, the Hindu celebration marked by a festival of colors.

Different parts of India have different traditions to celebrate Holi, a festival that falls this year on March 1. Holi marks the arrival of spring and the victory of good over evil.

A Two-day celebration

I’m originally from the state of Maharashtra in the western part of India. Growing up in this region of India, Holi was a two-day celebration. My mom would start the first day by making a big feast. The highlight of the meal was always the dessert “Puran Poli,” a sweet flatbread filled with lentils, sugar, cardamom, and nutmeg. The dessert is topped with “ghee,” also known as clarified butter. Later that evening, we’d have a neighborhood bonfire.

A Festival of Colors

The big “festival of colors” happened on the second day of Holi. To celebrate the coming of spring – we’d throw colored powders at each other while the kids would spray each other with water guns filled with colored water.

The author with her family as they celebrate Holi.

Celebrating Holi in Upstate N.Y.

Now I live in Clarence, N.Y., and haven’t lived in India for almost two decades. I still make my favorite Puran Poli dessert. I’ve included the recipe below.

My family and I attend the temple at the Hindu Cultural Society in Getzville, N.Y., where we celebrate the festival with our local community by throwing colors. Everyone from kids to adults enjoy this fun event.  We wear traditional clothing during the festival.  Despite what you might see in the Bollywood movies, we’re not wearing white clothes during the festival.

The one thing I miss about celebrating Holi in India is just how big the festival could become. Everyone celebrated Holi where I’m from. Here, we celebrate at the temple with only 100 to 200 people. It’s still fun and meaningful, but definitely not as big!

Print Recipe
Puran Poli
Prep Time 2 hours
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Prep Time 2 hours
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Instructions
  1. Wash the chana dal 2-3 times. Add 5 cups of water along with the dal in a heavy-bottomed pot. Let the lentils cook on medium-low heat for an hour, stirring a few times. Remove any white foam that may rise up.
  2. Drain all the water. Add sugar, nutmeg powder, cardamom powder, and saffron. Mix well, and cook stirring frequently for 10-15 minutes on medium heat.
  3. Cool down the cooked dal for 10 mins. Blend it to a smooth consistency with a hand blender or food processor.
  4. Knead soft, pliable dough with 1 cup of whole wheat flour, salt, and oil. Let the dough rest for 30 mins.
  5. Start making balls for the dough and the stuffing, which should be of the same size.
  6. Put a heavy griddle on medium-high heat. Roll the dough by using the dry wheat flour that is kept aside for rolling. Make a 3-4 inch diameter circle. Put the stuffing in the middle of the rolled dough and then gather all the sides of the dough on top of the stuffing to enclose it. Roll the bread softly using more dry flour. Gently put the rolled bread on the heated griddle. Cook evenly on both sides to a perfect golden brown color. Serve with ghee on top.

I Stand – A Lot. But why does it make others uneasy?

I have an odd habit that’s good for my health, but seems to make others uneasy.

I have a tendency to stand, even when asked to sit.

You might not think this is odd. Especially since sitting too much could put us at risk for serious health issues, including heart disease and diabetes.  This is true for people who even exercise regularly.

But my tendency to stand seems to create a lot of confusion.

Stand Whenever You Can

Whenever I walk into my hairdresser’s, for example, she always says, “Take a seat.”

But I don’t. I stay standing.

I stand when I read the paper, wait at the doctor’s office or nail salon, fill out papers or read something on my phone.

The other day a friend and I were waiting for another friend to go for a walk. While we were waiting, my friend asked if we should sit. I said, “No! We’re about to go for a walk! We’re not sitting!”

My new approach to standing

But I may need to take a slightly different approach to my standing habit.

My hairdresser, for example, said my standing while waiting makes her nervous. I’m making it seem as if I’m impatient, that I need to be helped right away.

That makes complete sense. It’s probably why I get all these odd looks whenever I’m asked to sit, and I don’t!

From now on, when I’m asked to sit, I may say, “Thank you, but I’m just better off standing.”

Maybe that’ll lessen everyone’s uneasiness? But we do need a culture shift. If people stood more, fewer people would ask why I’m standing!

Other ways to stand more

If you need more tips on how to stop sitting so much, read “Is being healthy as simple as standing up?”

I’d also love to learn more about any ideas you may have on ways to stop sitting so much! Please add your thoughts to the comments section below.

Flavorful Escarole and Pastina Soup

This delicious Escarole and Pastina soup includes many Italian flavors that remind me of my childhood. What little Ragazzo or Ragazzi didn’t grow up feasting on ingredients such as escarole, tiny pastina, and cannellini beans?

Alisa Fanara, my co-worker (and fellow Italian), shared this recipe. This soup is perfect for a wintery day. Add chicken or sausage to make the soup heartier.

5 New Ways to Enjoy Chocolate This Valentine’s Day

Chocolate and Valentine’s Day go together like socks and shoes or peanut butter and jelly. Wooing your sweetheart with a chocolatey treat is part of what we love about this holiday. But eating chocolate may also help our health, too.

Health benefits of chocolate

Chocolate comes from the cocoa bean, which has lots of flavonoid nutrients. Flavonoids can help reduce damage associated with heart disease. In addition, the flavonoids can lower blood pressure and improve the overall health of the heart and blood vessels. There are also lots of heart-healthy fats in chocolate, similar to the good kind that’s also found in olive oil.

But when it comes to healthy eating, not all chocolatey-treats are created equal. This Valentine’s Day, here are five new ways to gift your valentine an indulgent, yet slightly healthier, chocolatey experience.

1. Make hot cocoa from scratch

Instant hot cocoa is pretty tasty. But make your own so you can have free reign over what goes into the hot cocoa mix. Want a hot beverage that is really chocolatey or less sugary? Here’s a basic recipe to get you started. Furthermore, if you’re feeling brave, you can add ingredients like ground ginger, ground espresso or cayenne pepper to your hot cocoa mix.

2. Try a really, really dark chocolate

Dark chocolate contains more cocoa than milk chocolate, which makes it a better source of those heart-healthy flavonoids. So the next time you’re at the grocery store and a treat craving hits, look for a chocolate bar with a higher percentage of cocoa (or “cacao” as it may say on the label). You may be surprised to find out you like it. If you’re a milk chocolate fan, enjoy the health benefits of chocolate without excess sugar and fat when you steer clear of treats that contain extra ingredients like caramel, marshmallows, and nuts.

3. Surprising Pairings

You’ve probably experienced the awesomeness that is chocolate and peanut butter, but what about chocolate and avocado? This surprising pairing actually makes for a delicious, creamy combination in desserts like dark chocolate mousse. Plus, avocados are rich in healthy fats, potassium, and fiber. What about chocolate and beets? Don’t knock it till you try it in a cake recipe, like this one. Bonus – beets are packed with vitamin C, fiber, and iron.

4. A Guilt-Free breakfast

Yes, it’s possible to enjoy chocolate for breakfast, guilt-free, with cocoa powder. Cocoa powder is low in sugar and fat. It also offers the same health benefits as other forms of chocolate. Try adding cocoa powder to your overnight oats or avocado toast.

5. Savory dinners

You may think of chocolate only as a sweet treat, but it can also be used as an ingredient in a savory (and delicious) dinner. For example, dark chocolate is an ingredient in Mexican mole (moh-lay) sauce. For Valentine’s Day dinner, why not use the crock-pot for this recipe for chicken mole? Or try this recipe for whole wheat pasta with dark chocolate marinara sauce.

Worth the Indulgence

My favorite chocolatey indulgence for Valentine’s Day? A peanut butter and chocolate-covered potato chip. As a Syracuse native, I have to recommend peanut butter wings from the local Chocolate Pizza Company. These salty-sweet treats are totally worth the occasional indulgence. Just remember to enjoy in moderation!

18 Great Non-Fiction Books for 2018

If you’re looking for an inspirational, uplifting or funny book for the New Year, here are a few of my favorite non-fiction books.

When you need a real-life hero

  1. Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand

I was riveted by the resilience of Louis Zamperini who started out life as a delinquent. Zamperini took his talent of running away from crime to earn a spot on the American team as a long distance runner in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The athlete later served as an airman in World War II. This was a “beyond the driveway” audiobook; I didn’t want to stop listening to Hillenbrand’s account of how the young Californian survived incredible odds after his plane went down over the Pacific Ocean. Furthermore, he somehow endured extreme torture and cruelty as a Japanese prisoner of war.

  1. The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel James Brown

It’s the 1936 Olympics again. Nine young men attending the University of Washington beat established rowing champions to represent the U.S. in Berlin. Most of the “boys” were working two or three jobs to attend college and support themselves during the Great Depression. Upstate rowing fans can relate to accounts of Syracuse University’s team, often a competitor of the Seattle team when they traveled east. Their story is also captured in the PBS documentary, “The Boys of ’36″.

All Creatures Great and Small

Books about animals remind me of my small place on this planet. I am amazed at the intelligence of these non-humans. The authors delve into the anatomy and biology of these animals, as well their personal relationship to specific ones.

3. “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating” by Elisabeth Tova Bailey.

I’ve given away so many copies of this book that I now order the book for friends and have it sent directly to them. This small volume starts with Bailey’s battle with a mysterious illness she contracted on a trip to Europe. Once home in the U.S., she became bedridden. An active hiker and nature lover, she had to move from her farmhouse to a small apartment close to where she could get care.

When a friend presents her with a pot of wild violets, Bailey is surprised to find an interloper living among the leaves: a common woodland snail. Soon, her fascination with the small creature morphs into a study of the Neohelix albolabris. Her description of the snail’s anatomy, locomotion, decision-making abilities and mysterious courtship is engrossing. So much so, that I assembled a terrarium and plucked several snails from my garden to live among the plants. They’re now in hibernation–or dead.

4. “The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness” by Sy Montgomery.

This book explores the author’s friendship with Athena, a deep sea creature housed at Boston’s New England Aquarium. When the eight-limbed invertebrate dies, Montgomery’s grief is overwhelming for her newfound friend. Playful on one hand, cunning on the other, Athena was one of three octopuses Montgomery observed and fell in love with. Local bonus:  Montgomery graduated from Syracuse University.

5. Alex & Me by Irene M. Pepperberg

A psychologist shares her extraordinary relationship with Alex, an African Grey parrot. Alex demonstrated an astonishing ability to communicate and understand complex ideas. Get the audio version so you can hear Alex talk.

6. Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl by Stacy O’Brien

I picked up this audiobook after my son expressed an interest in owls. (He also likes puffins.) O’Brien, a biologist, adopts Wesley, a barn owl, when he is just three days old. She bonds with Wesley, who grows to consider her his mate; owls are monogamous. This account is touching and tender, from how the young woman cuddles her animal friend to how she feeds and cares for him so that he has as “natural” a life as possible in captivity.

A Happy Life

7. “A Short Guide to a Happy Life” by Anna Quindlen

Often given to high school and college graduates, this small volume contains the Pulitzer Prize winner’s advice on how to “get a life.” Just 19 when her mother died of ovarian cancer, Quindlen has been living under the shadow of her own mortality since then. She writes, “that knowledge of your own mortality is the greatest gift God ever gave us.”

8. “The Book of Awakening: Have the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have” by Mark Nepo

My yoga teacher often ends practice by reading from this book. A cancer survivor, Nepo advocates “being present” to enjoy life as it unfolds. Therefore, he begins each day with a quote and ends it with a meditation. No one can go through your journey for you, he writes, “but you are not alone. Everyone is on the same journey. Everyone shares the same pains, the same confusions, the same fears…”

Spiritual, Not Religious

9. “Traveling Mercies” by Anne LaMott.

This book of essays features LaMott’s hard-won life lessons. A recovering drug addict and alcoholic, LaMott grew up searching for a connection with a higher power. She found it in a Marin City, California, church with a diverse congregation in a poor neighborhood.

Her faith is earthy and real.

For example, shortly after LaMott’s close friend died and a relative was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, LaMott observed: “I felt alternately rubbery and empty, like sometimes I was landing on the Swiss cheese, sometimes in the holes.”

In Sickness and in Health

10. “Kitchen Table Wisdom” by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.

I don’t remember why I picked up “Kitchen Table,” but it’s definitely a keeper. Remen’s parents were both doctors who believed in science, not religion. From her grandfather, an Orthodox rabbi and scholar of the Kabbalah, Remen learned about the connectedness we have with each other. Remen uses her own personal illness to enlarge her view of medicine. Consequently, she was one of the first physicians in the country to adopt the practice of holistic medicine.

11. “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Really Matters at the End” by Atul Gawande

Written by a practicing physician, this thoughtful book relies upon  Gawande’s own medical practice and his experience with his father’s death. He also relates how one doctor in upstate New York transformed a nursing home from a place of dying to a home for the living to spend their last days among pets, plants, and children.

12. “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanthi

Although a book about dying may not seem uplifting, author Paul Kalanthi manages to evoke wonder and awe as he recounts his transition from brilliant neurosurgeon resident to dying patient. Diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, Kalanthi learns more from his own struggles than any lesson he was taught in medical school:

“…the physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our own arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.”

I teared up as I read the author’s final words to his infant daughter. In the margin, I’d written one word: Profound.

When the Going Gets Tough

13. “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” by Rabbi Harold Kushner

Kushner believes that tragedy is often due to the randomness of the universe. Bad things just happen. Kushner’s first-hand experience asking God, “Why?” stems from his young son’s diagnosis of a degenerative disease. Called progeria, the extremely rare disease speeds up the aging process. Kushner’s son, Aaron, died of old age when he was in his early teens.

14. “Share My Lonesome Valley, The Slow Grief of Long-term Care” by Doug Manning.

Manning’s words are comforting for those caring for a loved one with a chronic debilitating condition or illness, such as dementia.

Caregivers often lose themselves in the day-to-day activities of looking after their loved ones. “Long-term care folks seem to just ‘function in the fire,’” he said.

When you take care of someone who will never be restored to their former good health, it’s a grieving process, Manning believes. His words acknowledge the caregiver’s need to grieve their “old” life.

Funny, But Sad

15. “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” by Roz Chast.

This celebrated magazine cartoonist chronicles her parents’ declining years in cartoons, family photos, and prose. Both comic and caring, this memoir tells how Chast, an only child, copes with her mother’s and father’s failing health. She cleans out the apartment where they’ve hoarded non-necessities for decades and moves them to assisted living nearer to where she lives. As a baby boomer, I can’t help but think of my own advancing age and how can I approach it graciously.

Funny and Informative

16. “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Cadavers” by Mary Roach.

Not a scientist, but a writer about science, Roach has authored books on a plethora of subjects, including sex, ghosts, eating and life as a soldier and astronaut. She combines the ghoulish with the informative in this tale of what happens to our bodies after death. She writes with a light touch that has you more intrigued than grossed out. I heard her speak as part of an Onondaga County Library’s Famous Author series; she’s as good a presenter as she’s a writer.

Comic

17. “Me Talk Pretty One Day” by David Sedaris.

Sedaris is another author I heard speak as part of the famous author series. He had the audience laughing the whole time. Sedaris is candid about his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, his dysfunctional family dynamics, and being homosexual. This is my favorite of his books, although his account of playing an elf to a department store Santa Claus gives it a good run in “Holidays on Ice”. Local connection: Sedaris’s grandmother lived in Binghamton, N.Y.

18. “Rossen to the Rescue” by Jeff Rossen

The NBC investigative reporter turned some of his televised Rossen Reports into a book. Subtitled “Secrets to Avoiding Scams, Everyday Dangers and Major Catastrophes,” the book covers topics that range from protecting your home and kids to fighting identify thieves. Easy to pick up and read a chapter at a time, “Rossen to the Rescue” may save you money, and more importantly, your life and the lives of your loved ones!

My Favorite Fiction

In an upcoming article, I’ll share my 18 favorite works of fiction.

Healthy Snacking Tips from a Football Party Veteran

Watching the big game can be grueling when you’re at a house party with a super-sized buffet.

But you can approach kickoff with a solid game plan to help you avoid getting sacked by too many fatty barbecue wings or ill-advised slices of calorie-laden pie:

  1. Before you go to your bash, have a small, healthy snack such as an apple or a handful of raisins and nuts. If you’re hungry when you get to the party, your willpower will go ‘wide right.’
  2. Offer a healthy dish for everyone to enjoy, such as vegetables and low-fat dip. You can crunch away on celery, broccoli, bell peppers and carrots! Be wary of dipping veggies in ranch or a similar creamy dressing which could load on the calories. Instead, prepare dips using Greek yogurt or light sour cream.
  3. Baked tortilla chips make just as good a base for nachos as their greasy fried counterparts. Stack them high with layers of cilantro, shredded lettuce, beans, fresh avocado, diced tomatoes, and jalapenos. If you’re adding ground beef, use the kind labeled “90 percent lean,” and be sure to drain away the fat.
  4. Looking for a healthy, but sweet snack? Try cookie dough hummus. I promise – it’s tasty! The sweetness of the peanut butter, maple syrup, and chocolate chips hides the fact that this is a bean dip! Click on the video below for the recipe.
  5. Another tip is to first take a 30-second food time out to assess all the choices on the game day spread before deciding on what you really want to nibble on.  Move away from the table, walk around and mingle. If you stay next to the food, you’re more likely to overeat.

By being aware of what you are eating and focusing on portion size, you’ll be able to make it to the presentation of the trophy feeling like a winner.